Photo Source: © Olympia de Maismont/AFP via Getty Images
Photo Source: © Olympia de Maismont/AFP via Getty Images

Atrocity Alert No. 202: The Sahel, Nigeria and Central African Republic

6 May 2020

Atrocity Alert is a weekly publication by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.


Extrajudicial executions undermine civilian protection in the Sahel

On 30 April the Human Rights Division of the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) published its quarterly report, documenting a 61 percent increase in human rights violations and abuses between January and March. Notably, this included 101 extrajudicial executions carried out by the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa), as well as 30 extrajudicial executions by the Nigerien Army operating in Mali. Additional violations of International Humanitarian Law by the FAMa included 32 enforced disappearances, and 32 cases of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. According to the report, the Mopti region remains the epicenter of violence in Mali, with 262 civilians killed and more than half of the violations and abuses committed during this period occurring there.

Civilians in Mali and neighboring states face ongoing attacks by armed Islamist groups and a cycle of deadly reprisals between ethnic Fulani and Dogon communities. National armed forces from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have also been widely accused of perpetrating grave human rights abuses against civilians during counter-terrorism operations.

On 2 May Burkinabè security forces seriously injured at least 32 Malian refugees in the Mentao refugee camp while searching for suspects involved in an attack on soldiers in the area. According to witnesses, the soldiers accused refugees of complicity with armed groups, warning them to flee the camp within the next 72 hours or face death. Millicent Mutuli, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Director for West and Central Africa, said that “the actions of the security forces as reported to us are totally unacceptable… refugees should be protected.” UNHCR called for an investigation and the transfer of the refugees to a safer location.

According to UNHCR, this is not the first time that refugee and IDP camps in Burkina Faso have come under attack. Due to pervasive insecurity across the Sahel, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has increased more than four-fold in one year to 1.2 million, with 838,000 IDPs in Burkina Faso alone. There are also an additional 263,000 refugees in the region.

The Burkinabè, Malian and Nigerien armed forces must carry out all military operations in strict compliance with International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law, ensuring that counter-terrorism objectives do not negate universal human rights protections. The Sahelian governments must establish independent accountability mechanisms to investigate reports of serious human rights abuses by the security forces.  Ending the culture of impunity could also play a crucial role in countering the rise of violent extremism.

Inter-communal violence and excessive force by authorities in Nigeria

Between 13 and 28 April at least 25 people were killed during attacks between the Shomo and Jole communities in the Lau Local Government Area of Taraba State, in central Nigeria. Clashes broke out after members of one group attempted to fish in a disputed pond, an important source of livelihood for both communities. Previous clashes between the Shomo and Jole prompted the government to ban both communities from fishing there. Additional clashes have recently taken place in the same area of Taraba State between ethnic Yandang and Fulani communities.

Nigeria has experienced recurring inter-communal violence, especially in the “Middle Belt” region that includes Taraba State. Climate change has exacerbated inter-communal tensions and increased competition for resources. These divisions are particularly sharp between herding communities, who are predominantly ethnic Fulani and Muslim, and settled farming communities that are largely Christian. While recent data is lacking, inter-communal violence left more than 1,300 people dead and 300,000 displaced across Nigeria between January and June 2018.

Meanwhile, the authorities have been accused of imposing unnecessarily harsh measures to confront the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the government decided on 4 May to ease the lockdown in the cities of Abuja and Lagos, and in Ogun State, since March the security forces have been criticized for using excessive or disproportionate force against civilians.

Security forces have reportedly shot and killed at least 18 people while enforcing measures to curb the spread of the virus. Nigeria’s security forces have a history of utilizing excessive and deadly force against civilians – including those accused of sympathizing with the armed extremist group Boko Haram and supporters of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. Some of these extrajudicial killings may amount to crimes against humanity. During September 2019 the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, urged the government to “prioritize as a matter of urgency, accountability and access to justice for all victims and addressing the conflicts between nomadic cattle breeding and farming communities, fueled by toxic narratives and the large availability of weapons.”

The Nigerian authorities need to increase efforts to mediate inter-communal tensions through dialogue and reconciliation. It must also ensure that the security forces consistently uphold human rights protections during the enforcement of the COVID-19 curfew.

Deadly clashes in Central African Republic despite COVID-19 pandemic

Clashes in the Central African Republic (CAR) between rival factions of the armed rebel group Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique (FPRC) left at least 21 civilians dead, more than 1,000 displaced and numerous homes destroyed. The 29 April fighting took place in Ndélé, where violence has escalated since the beginning of March. The African Union, Economic Community of Central African States and the UN Peacekeeping Mission in CAR (MINUSCA) all condemned the fighting, reiterating that attacks against civilians constitute war crimes under CAR’s penal code and international law.

Although violence in CAR has decreased since the signing of the February 2019 peace deal, some signatories routinely violate the agreement. For many years CAR has also been one of the most dangerous environments in the world for humanitarian workers, with persistent threats and numerous killings. The insecurity in Ndélé resulted in the temporary suspension of all humanitarian aid to the village, where approximately 12,000 internally displaced persons remain in dire need of assistance.

As CAR prepares for the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, more than 2.6 million Central Africans are already in need of humanitarian aid due to endemic conflict and decades of political turmoil. Health infrastructure in the country is almost nonexistent and there are reports that the minority Muslim population – who have been historically marginalized as “Arab foreigners” – are being disparaged as “virus-spreading outsiders.”

Yao Agbetse, UN Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in CAR, warned that, “unless the hostilities end immediately, according to the commitments made by the armed groups under the Peace Agreement signed on 6 February 2019, the Central African Republic is heading toward a certain health disaster.” Echoing UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ call for a global ceasefire, the Independent Expert also called for an immediate ceasefire to protect Central Africans from COVID-19 and allow humanitarian agencies to operate freely.

All signatories must abide by the 2019 Peace Agreement and fully comply with their obligations under International Humanitarian Law. The government should conduct an independent investigation into the recent clashes in Ndélé and ensure that those responsible for attacking civilians are brought to justice.

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect


Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date on R2P news and alerts

Follow us on social media


Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA

Phone: +1 212-817-1929 |
R2P Resources & Statements